The House of Bhutto: A family at war in a divided country

Just 10 days after Benazir's death, as Pakistan prepares for a bitter election campaign, it may be the younger members of her shattered dynasty who heal the rifts. By Andrew Buncombe and Omar Waraich in Islamabad
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The Independent Online

The dust has not settled. The shock to what passes for Pakistan's body politic has by no means worn off. And yet, in the House of Bhutto, a dynasty is regrouping and showing why it has been a force here for more than four decades. There has even been talk of a "royal" wedding to reconcile the oft-divided family.

Ten days after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated as she left a campaign rally, Pakistan is readying itself for what could be an extraordinarily bitter and divisive election campaign. Tariq Fatemi, the country's former ambassador to both the US and the EU, said: "I have to say I see the coming weeks as a time of heightened tension and growing confrontation... There is a gulf between the people and the rulers... a dangerous divide."

That is nothing compared to the rifts that have sometimes been apparent in the rival branches of the Bhutto family, at odds since the fatal shooting in 1996 of Benazir's brother Murtaza in Karachi while she was Prime Minister. The main divisive figure in the family is Ms Bhutto's widowed husband, Asif Ali Zardari, nicknamed "Mr 10 Per Cent" for allegedly taking kickbacks as a government minister, and the target of accusations over Murtaza's death. Although Ms Bhutto's will named Mr Zardari her successor as chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, he deferred to their 19-year-old son, Bilawal, who has since taken the critical "Bhutto" as a middle name. Mr Zardari says he will run the party until his son finishes at Oxford University. His leadership could yet splinter the PPP.

Benazir's family is one branch of the Bhutto tribe, one of the largest in the southern province of Sindh. Its hundreds of thousands of members range from farmers to landowners. Benazir's uncle Mumtaz, 73, is the clan patriarch who presides like a feudal lord over serfs and servants in the ancestral town of Larkana. He said the renaming of Bilawal was a hollow ploy. "It is an attempt to overshadow the Bhutto family and also to continue to get benefit from the name of Bhutto by the Zardaris," he said at his palatial home. "But it will not work. People will not accept this." Still, Mumtaz Bhutto said he was seeking to unite the family after his niece's death. "It is only politics and Benazir's advent on the scene that split up the family, and now I am trying to mend the split," he said.

Fakhri Saboonchi, a cousin and close confidante of Benazir, expressed hope that Mr Zardari could become a unifying force in the clan and reach out to those still angry over Murtaza's death. "I'm sure he's changed, he will work hard for it because this is his wife's will," she said at her Karachi home, filled with photos of Ms Bhutto's wedding and of other relatives.

In one potential move to reconcile the family, Ms Bhutto's younger sister, Sanam, has proposed that Bilawal marry his cousin Fatima, 25, according to a person who heard the discussion and who spoke on condition of anonymity. But several relatives dismissed an arranged marriage between the first cousins as unlikely in these modern times between two young people who are progressive in outlook.

Fatima's mother, Ghinwa, who heads a dissident faction of the People's Party said her daughter was like a big sister to her cousins and that such a marriage was out of the question. "Bhutto's legacy is not something which is somebody's property," she said. "Nobody can grab the Bhutto legacy by any attempt."

It may indeed be up to the children to bring the family together something that appears already to be happening. In an article after Benazir's death, headlined "Young Bhuttos proving wiser than their elders", Pakistan's The News wrote that the Bhutto offspring drew closer through their shared mourning in Larkana, where Benazir was laid to rest beside her slain father.

"It seems that the shocking death of Benazir Bhutto has produced a great healing effect on the otherwise warring families," it said.

And, in the aftermath of Benazir's death, Fatima Bhutto the daughter of Benazir's late brother Murtaza, and a poet and politician who became a harsh critic of her aunt issued a public call for calm in the family. "I never agreed with her politics. I never did. I never agreed with those she kept around her, the political opportunists, hangers-on, them. They repulse me. I never agreed with her version of events. Never," she wrote on Sunday in The News. "But in death, in death perhaps there is a moment to call for calm. To say, enough... We cannot, and we will not, take any more madness."

Meanwhile, the mine-laden path towards parliamentary elections on 18 February was laid out last week by the country's Electoral Commission, widely seen as controlled by President Pervez Musharraf. The commission said that damage caused in the emotional aftermath of Ms Bhutto's death had left it logistically unable to hold the vote as planned. Voter registration lists and ballot boxes had been burned, said officials.

Yet one thing is certain: the decisions taken in the coming weeks by Mr Musharraf will be crucial to the country's short-term future. In the power-sharing arrangement that had been brokered by the US and Britain, the elections were a means to allow Ms Bhutto, and with her a degree of democracy, to enter Pakistan's political dynamic. The main motive for the West was not promotion of democracy as much as the provision of a political lifeline to the beleaguered Mr Musharraf, a vital ally in the so-called war on terror. Mr Musharraf's choice is simple. Does he, as the international community is urging, decide that even though Ms Bhutto is dead, the deal with her party still stands? Does he allow the poll to go ahead in conditions that can be called at least reasonably free and fair?

If he does, the likelihood is that the PPP will be in a position to put together a coalition that can at least in the short term make a government. In such circumstances, the PPP vice-chairman, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, would almost certainly serve as prime minister, in theory sharing power with Mr Musharraf and the military. And there, always there somewhere, will be the House of Bhutto.